May 28, 2014Interviews

Know the Heretics: A Book Interview with Justin Holcomb

Justin Holcomb answers questions about his new book on heresy throughout church history.
Know the Heretics: A Book Interview with Justin Holcomb

Q: What makes someone a heretic? What is the difference between orthodoxy and heresy?

Justin Holcomb: A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means "choice"—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one's own insights.

A heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is

Orthodoxy is the teaching that best follows the Bible and best summarizes what it teaches — best accounts for the paradoxes and apparent contradictions, best preserves the mystery of God in the places where reason can't go, and best communicates the story of the forgiveness of the gospel.

Q: What two or three ancient heresies do you think are challenging the church right now?

Justin: Modalism—the belief that God is one actor wearing three hats—is floating around today. Modalism is a non-Trinitarian heresy claiming that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different modes of God and not distinct persons within the Godhead.

Modalism is seen today in the "Oneness" sect of Pentecostalism, which clearly denies the doctrine of the Trinity. In the Modalist scheme, God is no longer love, because he no longer has anyone whom he has loved eternally. The intimate relationship between God the Father and Jesus in John 17 would be irrational. Finally, since God takes on several different roles as he pleases (such as Son and Father), it is questionable whether we have ever encountered God as he really is rather than what he does.

Also, I think a repackaged version of Pelagianism is common today. Pelagius developed an ascetic form of Christianity with an overly optimistic theology of human nature.

Pelagius correctly saw human nature as something good created by God. It is the result of the fall upon humanity (original sin), however, that Pelagius ignores, causing his theology to fall into error. Pelagius argued that there is no such thing as original sin. In no way were humans after Adam guilty of or implicated in his first sin. Adam's sin in no way makes humans guilty or corrupt. Humans by nature have a clean slate — a state of neutrality — according to Pelagius, and it is only through voluntary sin through the exercise of an unhampered human free will that humans are made wicked. Potentially, then, one could live a sinless life and merit heaven, for there is nothing intrinsically sinful about humans even after Adam and Eve's sin. Pelagius didn't consider humans to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

Pelagius didn't consider humans to be intrinsically damnable after the fall.

In short, Pelagius rejected the doctrines of original sin, substitutionary atonement (the idea that Christ's death in our place is a supernatural intervention to save us), and justification by faith (the idea that believing and trusting in Christ is the way to salvation).

To me this sounds like lots of the gobbledygook that is passed around today in popular Christian TV, radio, and publishing.

Q: Are the creeds and confessions we already have sufficient, or do we need more?

Justin: I think that we are fine with the creeds we currently have, but that more confessions would be a good thing. In contrast to creeds, which are basic statements of belief, confessions represent more detailed inquiry into the things of God. The creeds are the boundaries of the faith that separate orthodoxy from heresy, while the confessions color in the picture, tying theology to everyday life in all sorts of ways. Creeds distinguish Christian faith from non-Christian faith. Confessions distinguish denominational distinctives (or one type of Christian faith from another type of Christian faith).

Christian confessions often define a particular group's belief on secondary issues such as infant baptism, the end times, predestination, the Lord's Supper, and the order of salvation. While the creeds strove to preserve "the faith delivered for all time," confessions tried to apply the faith to the here and now.

Q: Who is a heretic that we may not have heard of but is important to know about?

Justin: Faustus Socinus (1539–1604) is probably the least known heretic. My summary of Socinus' heresy is: "The Trinity is irrelevant and Jesus' death is only an example."

When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way.

Socinus held a unitarian view of God: only God the Father is truly and fully divine. Jesus, "the Son of God," received a unique divinely appointed office as the Logos, an office that deserves respect and even worship. However, for Jesus, that respect and worship were limited to his office and did not extend to his person, which Socinus argued was not divine. Socinus argued that the ecumenically accepted doctrine of the Trinity could not be defended.

Given his understanding of the radical unity of God and, consequently, Jesus' merely human existence, Socinus's view of the atonement logically differed from commonly accepted views. Socinus argued that because Jesus was not divine, his death could not have been intended to make satisfaction (as Anselm argued) or to pay a penalty on behalf of other humans (as the Calvinists argued). Instead, Socinus understood Christ's death to serve as a way for God to model true love and devotion and to demonstrate the way of salvation. Jesus, then, only provided the unique and divinely anointed model for humans to imitate.

Q: Why should we learn about the heretics? Is there a practical reason people should take the time to do this?

Justin: There are three major reasons. The first is that while there is certainly ambiguity in the Bible, the Creator of the world has decided to reveal himself to us and even to live with us. It is important to honor that revelation. When we try to reshape revelation and God according to our preferences, we are drifting away from God as he really is. Imagine a friend who ignores the parts of you that he or she doesn't like. Is that a deep relationship? Ambiguity or not, uncomfortable or not, it is vital that we are obedient to what we can know about God.

The second reason is related to the first. When we have a flawed image of God, we no longer relate to him in the same way. What you believe about God changes everything.

It affects how you love, work, live, parent, evangelize, purchase, and worship. It is surprising how much our beliefs about God impact our daily lives, which is partly what makes theology such a rewarding (although difficult and dangerous) discipline.

Third, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Learning about the heresies of the past helps us avoid them today.

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Know the Heretics: A Book Interview with Justin Holcomb